You might not necessarily have thought Katherine Parkinson – her off ‘The IT Crowd’, who’s just completed a stint in the West End in ‘Home, I’m Darling’ – would need much help getting her first play staged. Nevertheless, she was one of four established names who was helped to take a show to Edinburgh last summer by comedy agency Avalon and the BBC, no less. ‘Sitting’ was the best received of a troubled bunch, with journalist Bim Adewunmi’s play ‘Hoard’ not even making it to the stage (although it opens at the Arcola after this).
There’s some nicely observed writing here, and perhaps unsurprisingly given Parkinson’s comedic acting chops, it’s also funny in places. But the actors are rather hampered by a tricky structural choice: they’re talking to a character that doesn’t exist. Luke, Mary and Cassandra are all sitters for an artist named John; the actors talk out to the audience as if John is just behind us, at his easel. As their monologues get going, Parkinson proves increasingly skilful at making this work, with a natural ear for the way we correct and question ourselves, for how we unravel our own stories. But there are also some fairly cringeworthy moments in Sarah Bedi’s production where they ask John if they can have a biscuit or whatever, to awkward silence.
It works by far the best with Luke, a young father-to-be, out of work and keen to make a bit of cash. His ramblings – about his irritating wife and his absent father, but also more comically mundane musings – do seem burbled just to pass the time. Plus they’ve won the lottery with new cast member Mark Weinman in this role: he gives a pitch-perfect performance, finding the right rhythm to make the writing flow, landing every joke (even extraordinarily tired ones – ho ho, a painter-decorator doesn’t know how to pronounce rioja! – while also suggesting real tenderness.
Hayley Jayne Standing and Poppy Fardell have greater challenges with the less believable middle-aged Mary, emptying her heart out about her lost sister, and the insecure, vain Cassandra, a wannabe actress and compulsive liar. Inevitably the three monologues overlap and intertwine, although Parkinson leaves her reveal rather late, and doesn’t really take it anywhere. It’s pleasant enough to hear these stories unspool and then plait neatly together, but I found myself praying Parkinson would try some dialogue next time.